Blum's Banter: What closing the gap means for Mizzou football in 2021

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz, right, talks with quarterback Connor Bazelak (8) during a game Nov. 21 at South Carolina.

Closing the gap.

Get ready to hear different iterations of that three-word phrase about 10 million times from July to December.

All right, maybe that's overexaggerating. But we'll check back to see how accurate my estimate was when the calendar flips to 2022. 

That's the mantra we started to hear at the end of 2020 from Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz about the situation for the Tigers. 

From his view, and many others, the next step of progress for Missouri is to improve on its No. 3 finish in the Southeastern Conference's East Division standings. 

Before diagnosing routes for gap closure, let's define said chasm. 

Of course, the top two spots in the division currently belong to Georgia and Florida, the only other two East teams to play in the SEC championship game since Missouri's entrance into the league in 2012. 

Missouri is on an island in third place in the division. Georgia and Florida continue to reap the rewards of being among the best teams in the SEC, a position that routinely also makes those programs among the top in the nation. 

The Bulldogs have the top-rated 2022 recruiting class in the conference according to the 247Sports Composite. Only one of their current 12 commits isn't a blue-chip prospect (four-star or five-star). Georgia's class is also No. 1 in the country. 

The Gators had a dozen blue-chip prospects in the 2021 class after snapping Georgia's three-year streak of division titles last season.  

All four SEC East teams finishing below Missouri in 2020 have either fired their head coach or offensive coordinator in the offseason.

Among that quartet's most recent in-season coaching contingent, only Kentucky's Mark Stoops wasn't given a pink slip in the last six months. 

Clearly in the middle was Missouri. Against the bottom four in 2020, MU allowed 55 points, which is impressive by SEC standards and made to look more glamorous without the anomaly of Tennessee's 35-point outburst on Oct. 3. 

After that five-touchdown performance, the Volunteers defeated only winless Vanderbilt the rest of the season and have since fired Jeremy Pruitt and hired former Tigers offensive coordinator Josh Heupel to take the helm at Rocky Top.

Against Florida and Georgia, Missouri gave up 90 combined points. While Drinkwitz has routinely sung his team's praises throughout his tenure, he also isn't afraid to give public criticism. The genesis of stating the gap between Missouri and the top two of the SEC East came less than a half-hour after the final whistle against the Bulldogs on Dec. 12, during Drinkwitz's postgame press conference. 

Missouri running back Tyler Badie (1) is tackled by Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell (3) during a game Dec. 12 at Faurot Field.

"We've got a long way to go," Drinkwitz said last December. "Our goal is to be competitive in the SEC East. And right now, the two teams at the top of the SEC East, we weren't competitive with. So we've got our work cut out for us. That starts with me in recruiting and player development."

By the time the Tigers emerged for spring practice at the end of February, gap-closure mode was in full effect. 

During Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk's first non-Zoom press conference since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic Feb. 23, he uttered the phrase twice.

At the first media availability of spring practice, Missouri receiver Keke Chism said it. 

Drinkwitz couldn't close out his final stop at the podium for spring football without mentioning it during his opening statement. 

So how much of the gap to Georgia and Florida can be closed this year? And how easy will it be to fend off teams such as South Carolina, who believe a new dawn in the conference is here, much the same as Missouri fans did with Drinkwitz's arrival?

Missouri's head coach mentioned a few key factors himself — recruiting and player development. Both are harder than they appear. 

The biggest keys to recruiting for the Tigers include finding elite talent in places no one else is looking and keeping the standouts from their backyard in Columbia. 

Commonly referred to as "locking down the borders" isn't so simple for MU. It's got a huge swath of land on every side without another Power Five Conference school. 

The geography of the state is unique with the St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas spilling into Illinois and Kansas, respectively. 

Of Missouri's seven pledged members in the Class of 2022, six are from the Show-Me State or the Kansas side of the Kansas City suburbs. 

The lone exception is the group's highest-rated prospect, four-star pro-style quarterback Sam Horn from Georgia. His pledge is what's possible with recruiting momentum, on-field promise and least of all — but still ever-present — some luck. 

Horn was plucked from a region where Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Auburn traditionally dominate in recruiting. Those teams that appear to be the luckiest usually happen to be some of the most successful, too.

Completely locking down the borders is, and has always been, impossible. If Drinkwitz were to bring a majority of the in-state blue-chip prospects to Columbia, that's a major victory. Falling short isn't necessarily failure, but it does make it harder to close that gap. 

Player development is trickier to pinpoint because of all the moving parts and how large of a roster the Tigers have at any given time. 

The early signs of progress within Missouri's walls are good. Five conference wins last season were the most it's had since 2014. Five players who appeared on the 2020 roster were selected in last weekend's NFL Draft.

One advantage for Drinkwitz: When he inherited the Tigers' roster, it wasn't a true rebuilding job, unlike the tasks for new coaches Clark Lea, Shane Beamer or Heupel.

Missouri had plenty of talent for his first season that helped lay his foundation and principles in the program. The Tigers' SEC East competitors with new head coaches or offensive coordinators don't have that luxury. 

Another third-place finish for Missouri in the 2021 division standings should be the minimum expectation.

Checking in at No. 3 again would be a sign of consistency, but it's not the goal.

Drinkwitz leveraged the craziness that was 2020 into indelible program momentum and belief in his ability to bring another SEC East title to Columbia. 

In a fall that's expected to be closer to normality, how the Tigers close the gap to the Gators and Bulldogs, and in turn fend off the bottom four, will be the road map to success or an unfortunate alternative. 

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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